The New Testament repeatedly reinforces the goodness of work, and sometimes in surprising ways. One such case is in Luke chapter 3, where we find John the Baptist preaching his message of repentance to the crowds. And in verse 12 we read that “tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’” Similarly, verse 14 tells us that “Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’” (Luke 3:12, 14).
Tax collectors and soldiers were a key part of the Roman force which was occupying Judea at that time. To the Jewish people, they were the oppressors, the enemy. These were the guys who made them pray and long for the Messiah.
And so we might expect radical, repentance-preaching John to tell these guys to quit their jobs. To stop collecting money for the Roman government. To stop fighting Rome’s wars and oppressing Judea. To lay down their moneybags and swords and become a part of God’s people.
Instead, what does John say to the tax collectors in verse 13? “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” In other words, be a good tax collector. Be ethical. But keep doing your job.
And what does he say in verse 14 to the soldiers? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” In other words, be a good soldier. Don’t abuse your position.
John does what nobody expected him to do. He refuses to say that these guys’ jobs were inherently bad. Repenting of their sin didn’t mean leaving Rome’s employ.
That much is clear. But there’s actually a lot more going on here behind the scenes, especially regarding these two particular jobs of tax collecting and soldiering. To begin to explore that, consider Galatians 4:4, which tells us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” There was a reason God waited until He did to send His son. The time had to be “full.” Certain things had to be ready, in place.
A significant part of that readiness was the Roman Empire. It’s easy for us to forget that throughout those 400 years of history in between the Old and New Testaments, the world was in upheaval. The Babylonian Empire had been taken over by the Persian Empire which was conquered by the Greek Empire which fell apart and fought amongst itself until the Romans took over.
Yet even then there were constant civil wars between the different Roman generals, riots in the cities, and tension across borders. In the hundred years before Christ was born, Rome descended to a place of almost total lawlessness. And all this meant that the world was a dangerous place—especially when it came to travel and communication. Pirates made the seas dangerous, robbers made the roads dangerous, and angry revolutionaries meant the cities were often little better.
But around 30 BC, Caesar Augustus began to accumulate power for himself, uniting Rome as an Empire and becoming it’s very first Emperor. He used his new power to bring stability and peace to the Roman Empire, ushering in a period known as the Pax Romana (the “Peace of Rome.”) What he was able to accomplish has been referred to by some historians as a miracle.
Augustus hired a professional army to stop riots and keep the peace. He established patrol squads to clear the seas of pirates, making shipping and sea travel safer. He built a huge network of roads that connected the whole Empire together, and had them patrolled with soldiers, making distant travel easier and safer than it ever had been. He established a courier service to deliver news and documents around the Empire. He worked to regulate the food supply.
All of this took money, of course. And so Augustus reengineered the taxation system to make it safer and more efficient, and he ordered Empire-wide censuses so that he could accurately tax the provinces.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…” (Luke 2:1).
Yes, this first Emperor was the Caesar Augustus of Christmas-story fame. And it was this Roman Empire into which Jesus was born. And it was also this Empire into which Jesus sent His disciples, saying “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)
And go they did. In an astoundingly short period of time—mere decades—the gospel spread and took root all over the Roman world. This rapid explosion of the church is yet another “miracle of history” from that period of time.
If you’ve read through the book of Acts, you’ll be familiar with Paul and his missionary journeys. He travelled far and wide by land and sea. He wrote letters and sent them all over the Empire, and was able to receive money from a great distance.
What we might not realize is that none of this was possible, at least at that scale, before that point in human history. And yet it was possible then because of the Pax Romana. Because of Caesar Augustus. And more specifically, it was possible because of Caesar’s tax collectors and Caesar’s soldiers.
Tax collectors were the ones who funded the whole thing. They collected the money which made it possible for Rome to build the roads hire the soldiers, who in turn did their part of keeping the roads and seas safe, and the cities peaceful.
So do you see how this all connects up? God used Caesar Augustus, and his tax collectors and soldiers, to get the world ready to receive the gospel. They prepared the way for Jesus’ representatives—the Apostles—to carry His good news far and wide.
This adds so much irony to John the Baptist’s interaction with these two groups. We know that John’s mission was to “prepare the way of the Lord” so that “all flesh” would “see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:4, 6).
And whether they knew it or not, those tax collectors and soldiers had the exact same job. They, too, were preparing the way for the Lord. They were levelling the paths and making it possible for all the world to hear about God’s salvation.
And this meant that their work had significance. Their jobs weren’t just futile and pointless. God was using their “normal” work to enable His gospel to spread and His church to grow.
If you think about it, the same can be said about so many of our jobs today. I once saw a list of all of the jobs required to get one missionary onto the mission field. It was astounding. So much “ordinary” work is needed in order for the “spiritual” work to take place.
Or think about what’s happening right now. I’m typing these words on a computer, and you’re reading them on a device, each of which required thousands of hours of research and development—and thousands of people working on assembly lines—to produce.
What about the last time you read the Bible? Think about the trees harvested, the pages printed, and everything else which made that possible.
Or just remember the last meal you ate. It didn’t fall from the sky. God kept His promise to provide for you (Matthew 6:30-33) using the “ordinary” work of farmers, truck drivers, and grocery store workers, not to mention the engineers and construction workers who designed and built the roads and the trucks and the grocery store itself.
It’s absolutely staggering to step back and consider all the “ordinary” work that has been required for every “spiritual” experience we’ve had in our lives. And this helps us understand a big-picture truth: because Jesus is at work building His church on planet earth, so much of our work actually means something now. It’s no longer vain and meaningless, like the writer of Ecclesiastes lamented. Every day, God uses our ordinary work to do His eternally-significant work.
And this is surely at least one reason why the tax collector and solider were not told to quit their jobs. God was going to use their jobs for the most important thing in the world. And so, their work mattered for eternity.
If you have a job, think about your work. What does it contribute to the world? Who does it help? What does it enable? It might not take you very long to think of ways that God can and will use your work to do His own work.
I trust this perspective will be energizing and encouraging to you in all your work this week and beyond.